WASHINGTON — As often happens at the end of a busy day, President Obama took a quiet walk Friday night on the rolling South Lawn of the White House with his chief of staff and longtime confidant, Denis McDonough. The two men talked war.
Pentagon officials had fine-tuned their target lists in Syria. Five U.S. destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean were awaiting orders to launch fiery salvos of Tomahawk missiles. Obama’s aides had canceled Labor Day weekend plans, expecting an imminent attack.
But after less than an hour’s stroll, Obama returned to the Oval Office and stunned his mostly new second-term national security team. He tapped the brakes on a military operation he had set in motion a week ago.
The president’s abrupt announcement Saturday that he would seek congressional approval before trying to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces for their suspected use of chemical weapons marked a startling U-turn. During the previous week, he and his advisors had never vigorously debated going to Congress.
If the decision was intended to seize the moral high ground from his critics, it also represented a clear gamble by a famously deliberate president. He was making a surprising surrender — at least for now — of presumed executive authority.
Obama could act alone, his aides insist, even if Congress refuses to authorize use of armed force in Syria. But he has temporarily handed the most critical decision of his second term so far to a fractious Congress with which he’s had, to put it charitably, a rocky relationship.
Senior administration officials called the move consistent with Obama’s legacy of seeking bipartisan consultation, and pulling America out of more than a decade of post-9/11 wars. On Friday, he betrayed his dilemma about ordering U.S. forces into another Middle East conflict. “I assure you nobody ends up being more war weary than me,” he had said.
On Saturday, he said, “I respect the views of those who call for caution, particularly as our country emerges from a time of war that I was elected in part to end.”
Colin Kahl, who served in Obama’s first term as deputy assistant Defense secretary for the Middle East, said the president must be confident about gaining congressional approval of a strike against Assad’s government.
“He has to have made a calculation that this is a fight he can win,” Kahl said. “If he wins on this issue, not only will the strike have more domestic legitimacy, it will strengthen the president on other issues.”
But critics called it an example of a less flattering Obama characteristic: delaying and splitting the middle on major decisions, muddling the power of his argument and, in this case, perhaps blunting the effectiveness of military action.
Just a day earlier, Secretary of State John F. Kerry had made an impassioned case for action, calling Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons a “crime against humanity” and a test of U.S. credibility.
“History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency,” Kerry said.
Obama has rarely sounded as certain as that. A day after the first videos of writhing bodies and glassy-eyed babies emerged from the Damascus suburbs, the president warned in a CNN interview against “immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”
In his comments Saturday, Obama said he’s decided that military action is warranted and he’s prepared to give the order once Congress agrees. The Senate is expected to hold hearings on the matter this week. The House is expected to meet after members return from summer recess Sept. 9.
Some critics say the longer Obama waits, the less effect the missiles may have in deterring Assad from using chemical weapons again, or perhaps more important, in convincing America’s allies in Israel and its adversaries in Iran that Obama will live up to his vow to take swift military action, if necessary, to deny Tehran a nuclear weapon.
“All of this dithering is very counterproductive,” said Barry Pavel, a former Defense Department official who is vice president of the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “And if it looks like he’s just checking the box, it gets much worse.”
Obama said Saturday that his decision was rooted in assurances from Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, that the military options on the table weren’t “time-sensitive” and he could launch the attack in a week or a month.
But after British Prime Minister David Cameron was humiliated when the House of Commons failed to approve a watered-down bid of support for military action — leaving the United States without its most stalwart ally — Obama took a clear risk of suffering the same defeat in a Congress that is deeply conflicted over Syria.
“This is a risky gamble that could have lasting effects for his foreign policy record — for his overall record,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
The unexpected delay also raised concern among senior military officers.
They fear Syria’s military will use the extra time to reposition forces and possibly place civilians in buildings or areas likely to be hit. That would complicate the Pentagon’s targeting, forcing planners to increase surveillance before any strike to prevent civilian casualties, or to hit relatively safe targets that may have less military value.
A Defense official said the Pentagon also might have to fire more cruise missiles than originally planned, because Assad’s forces will have had additional time to prepare their air defenses.
“It’s not the way we would have planned it,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military planning.
The delay “gives Assad eight to 10 days when he has complete freedom to maneuver,” said Christopher Harmer, a retired Navy lieutenant commander and former Central Command planner.
Still, some commanders have long complained about presidents sending the military into action without public backing or congressional approval.
In major conflicts, such as the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq invasion, Congress has approved resolutions giving the president authority to use force. But in smaller military operations, even what became a seven-month air campaign in Libya in 2011, Congress has stayed on the sidelines, or been pushed there.
Many lawmakers in both parties are not convinced by the intelligence that the White House has shared in briefings and an unclassified “white paper.” They say Obama hasn’t proved that the Assad government, rather than a rogue commander or rebel forces, was responsible for the Aug. 21 attack.
Even some of Obama’s backers worry that his decision reinforced a perception that he was looking for an excuse not to order the military action.
“He knows we will vote it down,” one Democratic congressional aide said. “It’s his way out.”
The reaction among allies in the Middle East could also prove damaging. Analysts said it could bolster Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s contention that Israel should launch a unilateral strike against Iran, rather than rely on the United States.
“This is going to confound people in the region; they will not understand it,” said Robert Danin, a longtime U.S. diplomat in the Middle East who is now with the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations.
Obama’s shift is likely to be deeply worrying to Israel.
“Israelis believe that U.S. credibility among local and international actors is at stake, especially in Iran,” Michael Herzog of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote in an analysis. “Erosion of American deterrence would be bad for Israel as well as Washington.”
Andrew Tabler, a veteran Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the decision reflects the cautious approach Obama has personally taken on the issue from the start.
“This,” Tabler said, “is all about him.”
Times staff writers Kathleen Hennessey in Washington and Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem contributed to this report.